The past few years haven't been especially kind ones for actively managed mutual funds. Scores of investors, fed up with less-than-stellar performance from many quarters, have pulled their money out of active stock funds and redirected it into bonds or more inexpensive index funds. Some fund shops in particular have suffered massive outflows, and at least one firm is finding somewhere new to place the blame.
In a recent interview in Barron's, American Funds Distributors president Kevin Clifford indicated that financial advisors may be partly to blame for the tremendous outflows that American Funds has suffered in recent years. According to Morningstar data, the fund shop lost $50 billion in net outflows last year and an additional $15 billion so far in 2011. Clifford was quoted as saying that advisors tried to push the shop's funds as "able to defy gravity" and perhaps oversold the funds' abilities in the process. Needless to say, many advisors were not impressed, given that they are some of American Funds' biggest customers.
While it may not have been expressed in the most judicious manner, personally I think Clifford's comments have a ring of truth about them. I don't doubt that many advisors pushed the funds and sold their clients on the funds' first-rate track records. Advisors are only human, after all, and they are prone to chasing performance and buying at high points just as everyone else is.
But similarly, American Funds doesn't have a lot of room to opine about the relationship between its funds and the financial advisor community, since it has worked so hard to cultivate that relationship over the years. You can't bask in the profits from your chosen distribution system when it works and then turn around and complain when that same system stops working. I'm quite sure that American Funds played a very active role in heavily marketing its funds to these same advisors during more flush years.
And actually, while no fund shop likes to see billions of dollars walk out the door, slimming down a bit could end up being a good thing for American. After all, it's hard to argue that the shop suffers from a small asset base. According to Morningstar data, the firm currently manages just shy of $1 trillion in mutual fund assets in just 42 funds. Of the 20 largest mutual funds in existence, nine of them are American Funds offerings. American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX) now sports more than $167 billion in assets, while American Funds Europacific Growth (AEPGX) has more than $112 billion.
While it's too soon to say that such a heavy asset load is starting to have a negative effect on some of the shop's funds, at some point it may become a problem. In fact, returns at many American Funds have been uninspiring in recent years. Now, I like Growth Fund of America. It has a solid long-term track record and a heavy allocation to low-priced technology names, which should do well as the recovery firms up. But this fund isn't just a one-trick pony; battered financial Citigroup
Room to run
But whatever its struggles with distribution channels and near-term performance, the fact remains that Capital Research and Management -- which runs the American Funds -- is a solid, time-tested investment firm. The team approach here, in which analysts are brought up and schooled in the firm's investment philosophy before being given a slice of a fund to manage, has a long history of producing outsized returns. Even with more modest recent performance, many funds in this family have some of the best long-term track records around.
Besides the immensely popular funds I named, there are some very good options in the lineup, including one of the shop's newest offerings, American Funds International Growth and Income (IGAAX). Like all American Funds, this fund comes with a front-end load, so only buy it if you can get it without paying that load, likely within a qualified retirement plan.
This fund has only existed for about two and a half years, but in that time it has put up an annualized 20.8% return, compared with a 17.3% showing for the MSCI EAFE Index. Here, management looks for well-established, financially stable foreign companies that pay consistent dividends, including top holdings Royal Dutch Shell
Time will tell how American Funds deals with the issues of its large asset base, middling recent performance, and its relationship with the advisors who sell its products. But for the time being, investors can still invest here with a little bit of caution and a lot of confidence.
Amanda Kish is the Fool's resident fund advisor for the Rule Your Retirement investment newsletter. At the time of publication, she did not own any of the funds or companies mentioned herein. Total is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool owns shares of JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.